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Karen Palmen


In This Place We Call Home...Sarah and Grammy—"The Ghetto"

family tree

Karen PalmenSariah sat down at the kitchen table next to the window. All around her she felt the warm Southern love of her Grandma, from the deep shining blackness of the heavy caste iron pots and skillets seasoned well from years of Mississippi fat back and salt pork (a gift from Granny G after she moved into the rest home in Lawrence County) to the sweet smell of hibiscus tea and orange blossoms. Grammy was finishing up the last of the dishes from this morning, which she always left for mid-afternoon since she still started work early in the morning at Groveland Park Elementary. The routine was the same: Sariah sat down and looked out the window that overlooked the parking lot of the neighborhood hotspot – Willie’s Bar, as Grammy did the dishes and waited patiently for Sariah to open up about her school day at Central High.

Sariah almost whispered, “Grammy”, Sariah repeated, “Grammy? Wasn’t somebody in our family in the Holocaust? I mean, didn’t people in our family FIGHT in the Holocaust?”

Grammy answered, “Oh yes – yes honey you’re right. Your great grandfather, Papa Soloman, survived the Holocaust.”

Sariah twisted her face up a bit and asked, “But” she paused, “He was a FIGHTER right? He didn’t just s u r v i v e.”

Grammy stopped her washing, “Honey…Sariah… s u r v i v a l was a miracle in that time. Yes, we could call him a fighter. He fought the Nazi’s in Warsaw with the Jewish Fighting Organization, but that’s not what Papa would talk about. He felt he was just l u c k y to survive.”

Sariah’s body tensed and she elevated her voice as if Grammy hadn’t heard her right, “But Grammy! He FOUGHT right?!” She pounded her fist on the table to emphasize her words.

Grammy snapped her head around at the sound of Sariah’s fist and slowly turned to face her, “Yes Sariah – He fought. He fought for food; he fought for shoes; he fought to save his family’s lives. And… he killed people.” She paused and noticed the troubled look on Sariah’s face, “Honey, where is all this coming from?”

“Hmmm” Sariah took a deep breath. She didn’t want to tell Grammy that she had gotten into yelling match with her social studies teacher and got kicked out of class. Better she tell her version of the argument now before Grammy got the discipline report telling Mr. Hargreaves’ side of the story. “Grammy, I have in-school suspension for the next three days.”

Grammy’s face froze, “What?”

“I have in-school suspension for the next three days” Sariah whispered.

With a clipped tone Grammy replied, “Speak up young lady! In-school suspension? For What?”

“I got into an argument with Mr. Hargreaves about the Holocaust.” Sariah knew she was in trouble. She knew Grammy’s school rules about arguing with teachers. This was not the first time Sariah had gone up against a teacher. In-school suspension was going to be the least of her problems if she didn’t get Grammy to understand her side of the story. Sariah gestured for Grammy to sit down so she could explain.

Grammy was slowly and deliberately drying her hands with the dishtowel and took her time settling herself into the chair at the table across from Sariah. All the while she stared at her, eyebrow raised, waiting for another dreadful story of Sariah’s overly dramatic fury unleashed again on one of her unsuspecting teachers. Grammy knew that Sariah studied in depth the subjects about which she was passionate and like her mother, she was always willing to go to battle over her passions. The Holocaust was one of those subjects. Grammy sighed, this is what repeatedly got Sariah into trouble, “Go ahead Ms. Sariah; give me the blow-by blow. What happened?”

Sariah started setting the scene, “First of all Grammy, you gotta understand that this man, my teacher, is kind of a bully. He wants us to sit there in his sterile white room, smellin’ like lysol, all the chairs lined up in straight rows, and just listen to him and write every word he says like it is the word of God! He don’t want us to talk, raise our hand, or basically… he don’t want us to even think.”

Grammy listened patiently looking for holes in the story and allowed Sariah to continue, “Grammy, Mr. Hargreaves was telling us about the Holocaust and he told the whole class that all they did – the Nazis – was go through the towns, herded up all the Jewish people like P I G S , put them on trains and send them to death camps to be slaughtered.” Sariah paused for dramatic effect and lowered her voice to a growl, “He said they didn’t even put up a fight.” Sariah glared at Grammy the way she had glared at Mr. Hargreaves. “ Grammy, he said this like it was the truth and he even MIS-quoted this old poet named Avva Kovner, who Mr. Hargreaves told us had said, “… and they went like sheep to the slaughter.”

At this Grammy shook and lowered her head and took a deep breath, “Sariah, what was the argument about?”

Sariah knew that she had Grammy hooked. Any time she talked about the Holocaust, Grammy was always surprised and interested in how much Sariah knew. Maybe she could get Grammy to forget all about the suspension and be proud of her for standing her ground, “Grammy, you know that man, I mean, Mr. Hargreaves ain’t right. So, under my desk I took out my phone and I looked it up on the internet, Avva Kovner’s words were, “We will not go like sheep to the slaughter.”

Sariah paused to check Grammy’s expression to see if she was mad about the phone – another rule broken, “So, I raised my hand and told Mr. Hargreaves that what he was saying didn’t sound right and that the quote was really ‘We will NOT go like sheep to the slaughter’ and that the Jews of Poland really did fight.” Sariah could see Grammy starting to think and get ready to formulate a punishment, so she quickly continued to paint Mr. Hargreaves as the ill-tempered, irrational, pontiff that he was, “Grammy, he was so mad that I had proven him wrong, he pounded his hand on the desk and yelled, ‘My parents were German nationals in Poland during WWII! I should think that my history is right young lady! And how dare you not only interrupt, but try to embarrass me in front of your classmates!’

"Grammy, I wasn’t trying to embarrass him, it’s just that his information was wrong and mine was right! So I tried to tell him. I even tried to tell him that I had family that grew up in Poland and FOUGHT the Nazi’s and that’s when he laughed at me.”

Grammy could see it. Just like her mother, Sariah had a temper, and when people laughed at her, she usually blew her top. Now, Grammy thought, the story was really going to get interesting.

“Grammy, I couldn’t help it. Yes, I yelled at him. I knew what he was thinking, so I yelled, ‘What, because I’m black you don’t think I know what I am talking about? Because I’m black I couldn’t possibly know about the Holocaust; I couldn’t have family that went through the Holocaust!'” Sariah inhaled as she felt the anger welling back up in her heart, “Grammy he was assuming a whole lot about me that I didn’t like, so I told him about himself and that’s when he told me to GET OUT.”

Suddenly, outside the window there was a loud CRACK! Both Sariah and Grammy jumped. And again CRACK! CRACK! Grammy grabbed Sariah and pulled her back away from the window. Neither of them spoke. The silence was only broken by the shriek of a young mother and followed shortly by the scream of the sirens hurling down West Lafonde Avenue.

Slowly, Sariah and Grammy tipped back to the window and peered out across the street. Once again, they were witness to an awful scene: a swarm of neighbors, a hoard of police and in the center of it all a mother wailing and rocking, holding her limp child, blood bubbling from his chest. It was a scene Grammy knew well. She felt the pain swell from the deep within her womb up through her heart and escape as a groan from generations of mothers who have lost a beloved child. It was seventeen years ago that she was the young mother in the middle wailing and rocking her dead child – Moriah – just two weeks after Sariah was born.

“Oh Grammy,” Sariah cried. She caught her mouth with her hand and let out a muffled sob, “Oh Grammy, when are we gonna move outta here…” she whispered.

Grammy, having witnessed enough of this repetitive scene, slid her arm around Sariah and ushered her away from the window.

*        *        *

It had been 2 days since the shooting. Sariah was still reeling from the shock of another death in the neighborhood. As she walked passed Willie’s bar she noticed that the makeshift memorial of flowers, Teddy bears and posters reading “R.I.P. Deondre” and “We will never forget you” and “Precious” was growing into a small mountain. Sadly, someone had taken spray paint and tagged it with the symbol of the West Side Crips, supposedly as a show of solidarity, but only acted as a reminder to Sariah that her neighborhood was a place in constant upheaval. Sariah crossed the street, climbed the three uneven steps to the door, walked in the house and found her way to the kitchen table where Grammy had already placed a glass of milk and one of her hot-out-of-the-oven molasses and ginger cookies.

Grammy had lived here in this house on West LaFonde since before Sariah’s mother was born. She and Grandpa moved in right after they married back in 1976. Grammy was so young when they married, but Grandpa Mose Lewis, a short, stocky, mohagany, thick muscled man, had swept her off her feet in high school when she was sixteen years old in Lawrence County, Mississippi. He was four years older than her and they had fallen in love. They both knew they were destined for marriage, but Grandpa Mose couldn’t find any work in Lawrence County. Both of their families had feelings about this; especially Grammy’s father Solomon. Both families agreed, love or no love, Mose Lewis wasn’t going marry Sarah Wolf without the means to support her. To prove himself to Grammy’s father, Mose Lewis looked for work everywhere. In 1973, after reading a notice of assembly line workers needed, and at the urging of friends that had gone before him, he went north to Saint Paul, Minnesota to work in the Ford Plant. He promised he would come back for Sarah when he had made enough money to support her. Mose kept his promise! In 1976, Grandpa Mose rode back into Lawrence County in a new Ford Maverick – brand new off the assembly line. He swooped Grammy Sarah off her feet in front of God and everybody, carried her to the courthouse and married her on the spot! Grandpa Mose was never one for pomp and circumstance and Grammy hadn’t been raised in a religious home that required a fairytale wedding. The courthouse was good enough for everyone!

Within two months of their arrival in Saint Paul, Grammy was pregnant with Sariah’s mother and in April of 1977 Moriah Zipora Lewis was born.

Sariah knew her Grandparents love story like the back of her hand. She also knew that life was not easy for them when they came North. Having a baby was a big challenge for them financially, so it was decided that Grammy would have to get a job. In 1978, Grammy was hired at Groveland Park Elementary as a cook and lunch aide where she has been working ever since.

“Grammy?” the usual start to one of Sariah’s queries , “Grammy? How did Grandpa Mose feel about you going to work? I mean, back in 1978 you weren’t exactly liberated.”

Oh Lord, Grammy thought to herself, now we are going to talk about women’s liberation. When – dear Lord – is this girl going to stop? Let me just go ahead and straighten her out right now so she understands the Lewis/Wolf way of doing things! “Ms. Sariah,” Grammy started.

Sariah knew it was going to be serious. It always was when Grammy made her an adult before her time by using Ms.

Grammy continued, “For us Wolfs and Lewises and now YOU, an Abraham, not working when there is a need for us to be working is not an option. We work! When I saw that your Grandpa Mose was struggling to pay the bills and put food on the table and that we were barely making our mortgage – I went to work. It had nothing to do with women’s liberation or freedom. It had everything to do with putting food in your mother’s belly and us making our bills each month.”

Sariah prodded Grammy more, “So, Grandpa Mose wasn’t mad at all?”

“Oh sure,” Grammy replied, “At that time it was still a blow to a man’s prowess that he wasn’t supporting his wife enough for her to stay home, but he got over it. In time we were able pay off the mortgage and we saved plenty so we could have something for ourselves a later on in our lives...” Grammy’s voice trailed off as she thought about Mose.

“But Grammy, since you had it all together, why didn’t you move to a better neighborhood? ” Sariah started again gesturing to the parking lot across the street, “Grammy, you … and Grandpa, you live h e r e.”

Grammy raised her left brow, a bit surprised and responded, “and Ms. Sariah, what’s wrong with h e r e?”

“Grammy,” Sariah thought for a minute before finishing her answer, “people DIE here. Deondre on Wednesday, he was only eight. And Sheng two months ago, she was fifteen. And Mr. Wasif ended up in the hospital after his store got robbed. Grammy, haven’t you had enough?”

Grammy took a long breath and exhaled slowly, “Sariah. This is my neighborhood. I live here, because I live here. Everything I have ever had is here.”

“Grammy,” Sariah paused, not for dramatic affect but to find the right words, “That’s not true Grammy. My momma isn’t here any more. Grammy, momma died right over there,” Sariah pointed to Willie’s Bar, “The same place Deodre was killed two days ago – momma was walking through that same parking lot – and, Grammy, with me in the stroller. I could have died there too.”

Grammy leaned forward, “But you didn’t. You didn’t Sariah, and I do have everything. I have you.”

Sariah huffed and rolled her eyes, “Grammy! I know you have been through good times and bad times here in this house. I know you can take it! You’re strong. I know you’ve seen a lot happen around here. But me?! Me, I’m young!” Sariah was pleading. Even though she knew Grammy did not accept her raising her voice, out of frustration she did it anyway, “Grammy! So much death. My momma died right over there! My friends die within blocks of this house. Gosh,” (that was the closest Sariah ever dared to get to a cuss word in Grammy’s house,) “ Gosh! Grammy, Grandpa Mose died right in there a year ago!” Sariah Pointed out into the living room. “All this death! Grammy! Don’t you get it? This place is so G H E T T O ! It is the GHETTO! Grammy, I’m young! I’m not as strong as you! I can’t take it!”

Grammy was taken aback. This is the house Sariah had grown up in. This was the house that fed her the love and warmth of her Southern roots. This home had soul. It held the smells of collard greens with smoked neckbones and the sweet aroma of the teas and tinctures Grammy brewed for hard times and bad weather. This house rocked with the living breathing sounds of gospel, rhythm and blues. The last thing Grammy thought
was that any of this was “ghetto,” a description that Grammy was sure Sariah had never known or truly felt in her life!

“And what is GHETTO Sariah?” Grammy probed Sariah’s with her own description of the place that held all of her memories. “What is this term GHETTO that you kids throw around as if you know it deep within your soul?” Grammy was curious if Sariah even knew where the word Ghetto came from, if she knew all the different images Ghetto conjured up. Ghetto as an adjective was just not working for Grammy!

Sariah worried that Grammy had been hurt by her outburst, “Grammy, I didn’t mean to offend you. It’s just that this neighborhood…” Sariah stopped short.

“Yes. About this neighborhood – Ghetto you say – it’s Ghetto.” Grammy repeated, “ Why is it ‘ghetto’?”

Sariah knew Grammy wasn’t going to let her walk away from this one. She looked down at the half eaten cookie on her plate and whispered, “It’s Ghetto because people die here Grammy. It’s Ghetto because people sell drugs here, and we have gangbangers hanging out on the corners smoking weed. It’s Ghetto because things like what happened to my momma, and Sheng, and Deodre scare me. That’s why it’s Ghetto Grammy. That’s why.”

Before answering, Grammy took a sip of her hibiscus tea and gazed out the window picturing her dear Moriah, and Deodre, feeling the pain and anguish of the loss for both herself and Deodre’s mother. “Sariah – honey, this neighborhood is having some rough times. Neighborhoods around the country are having rough times, but this – this is no Ghetto.”

Grammy continued to look out the window as she sunk into her own thoughts about the word Ghetto. Ghetto brought her back to her lived experience as a child in Lawrence County, Mississippi: dirt roads and clapboard floors, juke joints and whore houses, saintly black women marching to church begloved in lace and decked out in their Sunday best. Her Mississippi home was in the midst of the black quarter in Goodwater Township. It was poor and it was dirty; people lived on top of people, struggling for basic survival and human dignity. It was a place where any kind of horrors could happen to “negroes” without the law being disturbed enough to right the wrongs that were done to its black citizens. The civil rights movement almost passed over Goodwater Township – that is until Solomon Wolfowicz, a Jew, a Yankee showed up with “Black Gertie” O’Brien (or Granny G as Sariah knew her) - fresh from the Highlander Folk School - ready to change the face and the laws of Lawrence County forever and drag it into the twentieth century!

Grammy was lost in her thoughts. As she peeled back the layers to that word Ghetto, she thought of her experience as compared to her Papa Solomon’s encounter with the Ghetto, again wholly different from Goodwater Township. Papa’s Ghetto was much more desperate and deadly than Grammy had ever seen and there was nothing in Sariah’s experience that would prepare her to understand the Nazi killing fields of the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland.

pictures from WWII